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Test reveals presence of animal DNA in vegetarian food products - CHOICE # 339

  • 2005.01.14

Animal DNA of chicken, cattle, pig and fish was detected in many (nearly 78%) samples of vegetarian food products, according to a Consumer Council test.

But the detection of animal DNA cannot be interpreted as the presence of animal meat in these foodstuffs.

This revelation which is potentially of serious concern to some vegetarians, was based on 18 samples of prepackaged vegetarian-resemble meat products such as meat balls, steak, chicken, etc.

In the test, animal DNA was identified in 14 of the 18 sample products. The samples were detected to contain one or two species of animal DNA: chicken DNA in 12 samples, cattle DNA in 9 samples, pig DNA in 2 samples and fish DNA in 1 sample.

However, it should be stressed that the presence of animal DNA in these samples indicated only the possibility that the foodstuffs may contain parts of the animals or, as is most likely the case, ingredients derived from these animals.

It must not be interpreted as conclusive evidence that the vegetarian food contained animal meat. 

The test aimed only to identify the presence of specific animal DNA in the samples. It did not seek to analyse and determine in which of the many ingredients that went into the manufacture of the food products that caused the presence of animal DNA in them.

It is entirely possible that chicken or cattle DNA in vegetarian food products could come from ingredients such as chicken egg or cow milk, and not necessarily from chicken meat or beef.

Likewise, pig or fish DNA could come possibly from such ingredients as meat flavours, fish paste or gelatin as food binder (a protein derived from collagen which is the basic structure of all the skin, tendon, bone, membrane and connective tissue in the bodies of vertebrates as pig or fish).

In addition to the detection of animal DNA, 10 of the prepackaged samples were analysed for the presence of genetically modified soy ingredient and preservatives.

Six of the samples were identified to contain a certain GM soy ingredient but the amount detected was so low (lower than the Limit of Quantification) that it could not be successfully quantified.

On preservatives, one sample was detected with 16.9 ppm of benzoic acid and another with 53.2 ppm of sorbic acid. The amount, in both cases, was considered to be too insignificant to be of any health concern.

There was much room for improvement in the proper labeling of such prepackaged food. For instance, three out of 10 samples that carried specific brandname, bore no expiry date or supplier address. Eight samples were without any brandname or detailed information on supplier, and some bore no expiry date or weight.

The Council has forwarded the test findings to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department for any follow-up action deemed necessary.

Consumers and in particular vegetarians are advised to heed the following:

  • "Meatless meat product", "soybean product" or product labeled as "vegetarian food" may not guarantee that they are strictly vegetarian. Always read the ingredient list carefully.
  • Try to choose those products with an ingredient list, and read if they contain egg or milk ingredients to ensure they suit your own particular dietary habit.
  • Ask the manufacturer about the product ingredients if the ingredient labeling is not clear or complete particularly if the taste of the product is especially strong "meat-like", or different from the usual taste.
  • Try to choose those products with specific brandname and detailed information of the manufacturer and/or distributor.

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